Back in 2010, a French company offered the Easter Island government a massive pyro-gassification machine that generated electricity from garbage. It was to be a gift.
Was it really the kind of gift you’d give a friend? Or was did it come with a hidden agenda?
The would-be gift from the French soon began to look like a trick, a trojan horse. Before long, this trash-burning wonder had little to do with what the local folks needed, recalls Greg Delaune, CEO of UIX Global and the island’s consultant.
The machine would have plenty of fuel during tourist season, when the locals were outnumbered several times over. But come the off season, the brilliant new pyro-gassification would starve. You can’t just switch the thing on and off like a light.
That little problem became clear, says Delaune, when an Italian consultant he worked with arrived to take a look. The Italian’s calculations not only revealed a disastrously irregular flow of trash but also a general lack of support: The French provider had no plan for maintenance, training, or parts. All that would have to come from halfway around the world.
“We realized that this company wanted to come install this thing, take a bunch of pictures of the island, and then walk away,” Delaune said, “The first time anything went wrong, Easter Island would be in trouble.”
Delaune lists a few main attributes any city should have before it considers new technology.
1. A clear, strong agenda among the public and the vendors. The French company’s gift that failed is a dramatic example of disconnected agendas.
2 Open communication with citizens. No city on the path to “smart” should go without a community engagement specialist or a go-to consultant, says Delaune. That’s especially true where public participation in design has become the standard, such as in California.
Ultimately, the most critical part of engagement is real, honest engagement. The opposite of such engagement does more harm than good, he says, by confirming an old prejudice that government doesn’t care. Good engagement can open doors to involvement.
3. City staff fully engaged and aware of the community’s needs and what’s next on the horizon. The old, dumb way to manage is still practiced widely among city staff around the world. Delaune said, “Unfortunately, a lot of city workers, especially in planning departments, seem to think their job is to make sure your project doesn’t get through. ‘If I can find something wrong with your application,’ they say, ‘I’ll kick it back to you and I say I did my job and kept the ball out of the goal.'” The opposite of that. City staff informed and empowered how innovation can work for the city.
“A lot that can be done,” says Delaune, “without even changing a lightbulb.”